7 Ways We Can Respond to the Trauma of Charleston

Mourners gather at Marion Square for a candlelight vigil, Thursday, June 18, 2015,  near the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston
Mourners gather at Marion Square for a candlelight vigil, Thursday, June 18, 2015, near the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Dylann Storm Roof, 21, was arrested Thursday in the slayings of several people, including the pastor at a prayer meeting inside the historic black church. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

I am an African-American ordained minister in the AME Church. I am the daughter and granddaughter of AME bishops, and I am a licensed clinical psychologist. I have spent my career working on the integration of faith and mental health, especially in the context of trauma, ranging from the medical trauma of HIV to the trauma of human trafficking. As I received the news of the terrorist attack on a historical church in Charleston, I felt an urgency to respond not only spiritually, but psychologically to address the wounds of my community. These are not new wounds, unfortunately, so this urgency is also not new, but was instead rekindled by the hate crime that left nine people dead, including a pastor who was my age as well as six women. This most recent tragedy is not an isolated violation, but an exclamation mark in a long string of violations.

My lived experience and my experience as a researcher, clinician and advocate give me a psychological framework for understanding the reality of racism-based trauma. There are experiences of racism that are everyday micro-aggressions and these can have an overwhelming cumulative effect over time, but there are also single incidents that can overwhelm our normal capacity to cope and that can create traumatic stress.These traumas are sometimes referred to as intergenerational trauma, when we consider the generations that have been effected by the systemic and individual acts of covert and overt racism. Another term that is used in the psychological literature is societal trauma, which speaks to the violation of oppression. Additionally vicarious trauma occurs when we are not the direct targets, but are affected by hearing about it and in this digital age it can include seeing it directly or seeing the consequences of it live or online.

We all respond to trauma differently, and there is a need for emotional space to acknowledge the impact of our experiences. We may feel shock, anger, sadness, fear or even numbness, and we may seek out people or we may isolate ourselves. Some experience intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance and avoidance of things and people that remind us of the trauma. It is important to take time to heal and to acknowledge the impact of the violations. The consequences of these traumatic experiences cross generational lines, effecting children and elders who are all deserving of care. It is important for us to know these traumas affect us, but do not define us. We are more than our wounds, and yet our wounds need to be tended. In our community, there has often been a stigma about attending therapy, but there have been a range of ways we have coped, survived and healed. Some of these include turning to family and friends, the Arts, our faith, and activism. Each of these are valuable and it is also important for us to consider the support of counseling with a counselor who is culturally aware of both the realities of racism and the richness and strength of our culture beyond racism.

As a minister, I would like to briefly share some important healing steps that have empirical support and which also mirror the steps Jesus took after the trauma of the cross.

1. Be still. Jesus spent time in the tomb. It is important to take time to be still and heal instead of getting busy and ignoring our pain.

2. Connect with family and friends. Jesus appeared first to the women who had showed up to support him during his trauma. It is important for us to connect with family and friends who have showed they are trustworthy during the times of our ongoing crises.

3. Nourish. After appearing to the women, Jesus ate, and we have to remember to engage in self-care by taking time to eat, sleep, exercise and engage in other health-promoting behaviors.

4. Show your wounds. Jesus was willing to show his wounds, and we need to remember that shame often keeps us silent and isolated, but it is a gift to find those with whom we can speak of our pain without masks.

5. Separate forgiveness from reconciliation. Another important step Jesus took is demonstrating the capacity to separate forgiveness from reconciliation. There are times when we need to choose to release the pain for our mental and spiritual health, but we also have to recognize when someone is not a safe person for us to have in our intimate space. There are allies that cross demographic lines and it is important to distinguish those who are allies from those who disregard your humanity.

6. Ascend. Jesus ascended into heaven, which reminds us not to settle for merely surviving, but to go the next step to thriving and post-traumatic growth. We have the desire to be everything we were created to be, and nothing less. We want to live an abundant, empowered life, and that has to be our aim.

7. Give back. Jesus promised to return, and we have to look for ways that we can give back, create positive change, resist oppression and serve those who can benefit from the lessons we've learned.

Many times we may jump to action, which is admirable, but we must also remember not to neglect tending to our souls, minds, bodies and, hearts as we move from surviving to thriving. We come from a church tradition of honoring our humanity in the face of discrimination and violence and as our elders taught us, "walk together children. Don't you get weary. There's a great camp meeting in the promised land."